Moon Express Setting Sights on Extracting Lunar Platinum

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SAN FRANCISCO — Moon Express Inc., the Google Lunar X Prize team hoping to strike gold — or more specifically platinum — through robotic mining operations, has assembled a group of experts to assist in pinpointing areas likely to have the largest concentrations of valuable resources.

In recent months, Moon Express held a series of workshops to determine whether asteroid bombardment left platinum group metals on the lunar surface and, if so, how feasible it would be to obtain those materials for use on Earth or in future space operations. Those workshops identified “localized hotspots” where the Moon Express team should focus its initial mining operations, Bob Richards, Moon Express chief executive, said.

The Moon Express Scientific Advisory Board will advise the company on the capabilities it will need to develop to succeed in mining the lunar surface for platinum, water and other valuable resources. The scientists also will help Moon Express identify customers interested in sending payloads on its flights, Alan Stern, Moon Express chief scientist and former NASA associate administrator for science, said.

The Moon Express Scientific Advisory Board includes: Jack Burns, a professor in the department of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado and director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research; Randy Korotev, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on lunar geochemistry and lunar meteorites; Steve Mackwell, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston; Wendell Mendell, former director of NASA’s office of lunar and planetary exploration for the Constellation program at Johnson Space Center and editor of the book “Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century”; and Clive Neal, professor of petrology and geochemistry at the University of Notre Dame and former chairman of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group.

Moon Express also announced April 23 that it completed its lunar mission design package and delivered it to NASA as part of the space agency’s Innovative Lunar Data Demonstration program. The 600- to 700-page document details the company’s spacecraft development work and plans to send its first robotic mission to the Moon in 2014, Richards said.

Moon Express officials welcomed news that another group of commercial space entrepreneurs was forming Planetary Resources, a Seattle-based venture that announced plans April 24 to mine asteroids. “It’s an exciting week for commercial space exploration,” Richards said.

Nevertheless, Moon Express officials think the Moon is a better target for mining operations because of its proximity to Earth and because decades of space missions have produced extensive data on its resources, Richards said.

Before conducting mining missions, Planetary Resources will need to identify promising asteroids and conduct remote sensing operations to locate platinum and other valuable raw materials. In contrast, NASA and international space agencies already have studied the Moon extensively and gathered physical samples proving the existence of platinum group metals, Richards said.